I have referenced John Coski’s book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, more than once over the past two weeks. It is by far the most comprehensive history of the Confederate flag and its place in Civil War memory. For those of you who wish to dig a bit deeper you may want to check out Robert Bonner’s, Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South [Princeton University Press, 2002]. It’s a much shorter book than Coski’s but it it does explore issues such as Confederate nationalism and religion in more detail.
As I was re-reading sections of the book I came across this passage about the Confederacy’s second national flag or Stainless Banner.
The decision to make more than half of the new national flag entirely white returned some Confederates to the question of race. The Savannah Morning News argued that the preponderance of white would make clear to the world that “we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” It even predicted that the new banner would be “hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.” Such expectations proved premature. “Purity” did become the primary association of this banner’s whiteness, and at a time when the Union turned to a war of emancipation, this resonant color could not help but conjure up something of the fears about “amalgamation” that were a part of American culture in both North and South. Yet the sort of overt reference to slavery and race that the Savannah editor expected did not become a major theme in the published record of commentary and verse. The opposition that most Confederates took to African American freedom hardly needed overt expression. Yet the tendency to skirt this theme in patriotic poetry recalled the earlier caution of risking international isolation and the alienation of southern nonslaveholders. (pp. 115-16)
In a recent Disunion essay Coski also takes note of commentary linking the new flag with the explicit goal of establishing a slaveholding republic.
A handful of contemporaries linked the new flag design to the “peculiar institution” that was at the heart of the South’s economy, social system and polity: slavery. Bagby characterized the flag motif as the “Southern Cross” – the constellation, not a religious symbol – and hailed it for pointing “the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave” southward to “the banks of the Amazon,” a reference to the desire among many Southerners to expand Confederate territory into Latin America.
With the Southern Cross prominently displayed, the Stainless Banner linked the Confederate nation with Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, which by the middle of the war had come to dominate popular perceptions of the war and represented their best opportunity for independence.
Next week the South Carolina state legislature will debate the removal of the Confederate battle flag that continues to fly on the state house grounds. While it looks like there are sufficient votes for its removal we are likely to be treated to the old refrain that attempts to thread the needle between heritage and hate.
Whether we like it or not Confederates openly celebrated the cause of establishing a slaveholding republic and the defense of white supremacy. They embraced it as the foundation of their new nation and as an improvement on the nation from which they left behind. It constituted their understanding of Confederate Exceptionalism.
At some point we all need to face this history and accept that it was always “a white man’s flag.”
[Link to banner image at Library of Congress]